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The nation’s growing population is accustomed to an ever-flowing water supply, typically giving little consideration to the critical resource’s origin or significance. Here’s some water for thought: According to the U.S. Geological Survey, it takes an average of 39,000 gal of the stuff to manufacture a car, 1,440 gal to produce a dozen eggs and 20 gal to run a household dishwasher.
To ensure that future generations have access to an adequate supply of clean, safe water for industrial, agricultural and residential use, providers must make every effort to promote conservation today. Many U.S. water utilities are leading the way, implementing environmentally sound and cost-effective water conservation programs. The water supply challenges and innovative solutions of two of these groups, New Mexico’s Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority (ABCWUA) and the California Department of Water Resources (CDWR), are profiled here.
Sustainability in the Southwest
Following 1980s hydrogeologic research indicating that its exclusively relied on groundwater supply was less extensive than once thought, in 1995 the City of Albuquerque Water Department in New Mexico adopted a water conservation ordinance. It began the transition to a “conjunctive-use” approach that would pull groundwater as well as surface water from the Rio Grande—currently providing 20% of the area’s supply—for its customers.
The department has since separated from the city, establishing the ABCWUA in 2004, but the mission to conserve water in the region lives on. Each of the group’s supporting initiatives fall into one of three categories: education, incentives and penalties.
Education. “When we started the conservation program, we knew we needed to begin with an extensive education effort because our customers had been told for many years that we had an inexhaustible supply of water,” said ABCWUA Water Conservation Officer Katherine Yuhas. “Changing this mind-set was our first challenge.”
To familiarize the community with water basics, the regional authority started sponsoring TV and radio spots, billboards, bill inserts, calendars, information kiosks at local libraries and presentations. It also launched an annual Children’s Water Festival and an in-school education program that engages students in activities catered to their grade level. All of the aforementioned outreach strategies are ongoing, top-priority efforts.
Incentives. The ABCWUA makes financial incentives available to all its customers, returning more than $1 million annually in the form of water bill rebates, according to Yuhas. Participating customers may qualify by purchasing indoor water-savers (e.g., high-efficiency washing machines and hot water recirculation units) and outdoor solutions (e.g., rain barrels and irrigation system controllers).
Penalties. Three full-time water waste enforcement staff members, assisted by interns during the summer months, patrol ABCWUA’s service area to ensure water conservation ordinance compliance. These individuals issue fines ranging from $20 to $1,000 for related violations, including watering outside designated hours and causing ice to form in the public right of way.
“Generally, our customers get the problem corrected after just one or two violations,” Yuhas said.
ABCWUA’s hard work is paying off. When the authority launched its focus on water conservation in 1995, it was pumping more than 40 billion gal of water per year to serve approximately 450,000 customers—usage totaling 250 gal per capita per day (gpcd). By 2008, these efforts had helped reduce ABCWUA water use to 161 gpcd, or 32 billion gal of water to serve about 560,000 customers throughout the year.
As a result of its decreased water usage, the authority has discovered significant environmental and financial benefits. ABCWUA is seeing reduced electricity consumption and a smaller carbon footprint, and the numbers on customers’ water bills reflect the fact that the authority has not needed to purchase additional water rights, drill deeper wells or treat more contaminated water.
Moving forward, ABCWUA is pushing for new construction in its service area to take advantage of water conservation techniques and reuse opportunities. “Landscapes that can be irrigated solely with harvested rainwater will become the standard,” Yuhas said. “And if you can flush your toilet with the water from your shower before it goes to the water reclamation plant, you’ve added some additional supply to your system.”
California’s Water Crisis
In February 2009, with California experiencing its third consecutive year of below-average precipitation, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a statewide emergency due to drought and asked that each resident reduce his or her individual water use by 20%. Factoring in continued population growth, water quality degradation, mandated water draw restrictions and climate change projections, for example, state and local officials are working to develop long-term solutions to this unwavering challenge; in the meantime, making the most of dangerously low water supplies is a must.
CDWR has assumed a leading role in California’s water conservation efforts. “[The department] offers technical and financial assistance to agricultural and urban water agencies and supports technology development and disseminates information assisting water users to reduce water use,” said Manucher Alemi, chief of CDWR’s Water Use and Efficiency Branch.
Financial and Technical Support. State water agencies are eligible for loans and grants under CDWR’s financial assistance initiatives. Recipient agencies, in turn, provide residents who install water-conserving plumbing fixtures and appliances with rebate dollars.
CDWR makes carrying out efficiency-related data analysis, demonstration projects and research a top priority as well. The department, for instance, sets up mobile laboratories that evaluate irrigation systems’ water use.
Public Outreach. CDWR and the Association of California Water Agencies have teamed up to educate Californians on pressing conservation needs and practices through their Save Our Water program. The program’s website, www.saveourh2o.org, offers resources such as downloadable conservation materials, a water savings calculator and a rebate finder. A For Kids zone offers fun facts, an interactive coloring book, a water conservation pledge and more for young water savers.
Save Our Water also is active in social media, reaching out to residents via Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and regularly hosts and participates in supporting events—from workshops and committee meetings to Kids Fun and Fishing Day and an annual Water Fest. Additionally, CDWR makes current weather data available to the public for irrigation scheduling purposes.
Regulation. Cities and counties statewide are required to implement CDWR’s recently adopted State Model Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance. “When implemented, the ordinance will reduce outdoor water use and prevent water waste while providing healthy landscapes,” Alemi said.
Furthermore, the state legislature recently enacted the Water Conservation Act of 2009. The new law requires that urban water agencies achieve a 20% reduction in per capita water use by 2020 and that agricultural water suppliers adopt water management plans and submit them to CDWR.
These steps, according to Alemi, have pointed California water use in the right direction. “The exact amount of conserved water has not been quantified, but the estimated amounts are considerable,” he said. “Water conservation, when cost-effective, must be given the highest priority. Often water conservation is less costly than providing new water supply.”
Drops for Tomorrow
Facing continual national population influx and the ripple effects that come with it—increased agricultural and industrial production demand, rapid urbanization, etc.—U.S. communities must follow the lead of these groups and learn to use their respective water supplies in new, more efficient ways. This challenge to support a more sustainable water future applies not only to water-poor regions but also those in which water has been plentiful to date.
Together, all communities can reduce the stress on the nation’s water resources and infrastructure by getting in the habit of practicing sound water use. The drops saved today will help keep future residents and economies afloat, and as in New Mexico and California, protect the environment and save water users money in the process.